Human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist, Femi Falana (SAN), speaks on the RevolutionNow protest, the growing insecurity in the country, Ruga, ministerial nominees, corruption war and the economy, among other burning national issues. Excerpts:
The release of El-ZakZaky on bail together with his wife for medical tourism in India has generated some ripples because of the refusal of the government previously to free him. Are you surprised? How do you feel about the whole saga?
I must say that I am happy about it all. I have stridently fought for the release of this man and though this is coming at a time when tempers had flared and so much blood spilled, I am happy that at long last our demand has been met somehow. I must commend the judge who granted the bail in the face of obvious difficulties placed by government. The judge exhibited a rare courage, the kind we need in this country. It shows that there is hope in the judiciary. There have been widespread insinuations on the emasculation of the judiciary by the government. This ruling has shown that there is a silver lining in the system and it does give hope of a better tomorrow.
But do you believe that the court order will be obeyed to the letter? Don’t you think that the DSS will find a way around it because of the weighty charges of treason hanging on his neck?
They said they will obey the order; that they will allow the man to go on his medicals in India. While we watch them, we believe that they have no good cause to detain him further. It is a good development.
Do you think it is a new dawn for the people of Nigeria because the pervading belief in some quarters is that the present government hardly obeys court orders?
It is not a new dawn per se. But it is a new dawn in the sense that the agitations of the people, the expectations of the people who have fought hard have compelled the government to sit up and obey court order. That much can be said on this development. It is a salient way of reminding government that there is power in the voice of the masses. If only government can review its stance on this as a future guide. No dictator can give you your right just on a platter until you demand for it. So, the agitations, the media reports, the protests here and there against the disobedience of court orders by this present administration must have forced them to obey this court order. So we say that the people have prevailed; the wishes of the masses have come to be, and the masses have definitely been vindicated. We salute the masses for their commitment to the cause of justice, good governance and order.
You spoke about the courage of the judge. Do you not subscribe fully to the notion that it is the courage of the judge that compelled the government to take this action and not the people?
Yes, it is the combination of the two. I also think that the media reports and the agitations of the people must have given the judge the impetus and courage to stand on the side of the people. Left to the powers that be, they would not have allowed justice to prevail. The judge stood for justice and we salute him.
The man and his wife have been left off the hook. Do you suspect that they can be rearrested on their return from the medicals in India?
They have not been let off in the manner you are suggesting. They have been allowed to go for medical treatment under the supervision of the State Security Services. So, they are not free. They are not free at all. Government officials are on board to go with them. They are not going out there completely free because their trip will be supervised by the government.
Despite threats of arrest by government over the call for RevolutionNow, people still trooped out in the streets on Monday to protest. Is it that Nigerians are just waking up now?
Nigerians are not just waking up now. The consciousness for change has been there. But what happened was a good development. Revolution? I do not think what happened was actually a revolution, it was a protest. Revolution must always be accompanied with force. It lacked all the ingredients of a revolution. What the masses did was to do a peaceful protest. It was a peaceful protest and demonstrations. It cannot in any form be interpreted as a revolution. The freedom of expression of everyone in this country is guaranteed by the constitution. So, what these people did was to express their views as enshrined in the constitution. That was a way of exercising their rights. It is amazing that some people in government have taken it out of context in a bid to suppress and muzzle dissent voices. It may have been tagged as a revolution, but in concrete terms it was not a revolution, but a mere protest. You can say it was improperly tagged.
But despite the fact that you view it as a peaceful protest, government agents clamped down on the protesters and arrested scores of them…
(Cuts in) The government itself made nonsense of the protest in the way it handled it. Manhandling the people and framing them for treasonable felony is the height of highhandedness over a democratic expression. It is cruel and undeserving of a government elected by the people and which prides itself on democratic credentials. They triggered off the seeming violence. If they had allowed the protest, everything would have been peaceful. I am sure you are aware that the government raised a pro-Buhari protest group, as well to also demonstrate simultaneously at the same time the anti-Buhari protests were going on. It was the conflict between these two groups that created the seeming violence. The pro-Buhari group was aided by security agents and they turned it into a violent protest. If you really want to look for who breached the peace of this country that day, it was the government that did it and should be held responsible.
The last four years have seen the re-emergence of political detainees in this country. How do you see the democratic credentials of the present government in power?
What we have is not a proper democracy. We only have democratic structures. Democracy in the proper sense of it will not accommodate the detention of opposition people. It will accommodate dissent and protests. We need opposition so as to put government on their toes. And that is what we are not getting. An atmosphere of fear has been created. Criticism of the government is only benevolently allowed. That is why we have different parties with different manifestoes. The present government is trying to cow people to submit to you, forgetting that you’re no longer a military president or head of state as he was. I think Buhari has not come to terms that he is now the president of a democratic structure. This is where the problem lies. His supporters are making it difficult for him to understand this because they hail him no matter what he does and this encourages him to go deeper into infamy. For them he does no wrong. That is why we are seeing him act like a dictator. There is no accommodation for people based on the expression of their views in a democracy. There is no fair play in the application of the laws.
Let’s talk about insecurity. Apart from the observed deficiencies in our democracy, Nigerians are also reeling under wide scale insecurity. What do you think is responsible for that?
The quality of the leaders that we have.
Kidnapping for ransom has really gained traction. Insurrection as in the Boko Haram rebellion is raging. Cultism and related crimes are on the upswing. Nigerians live on a tip-toe stance. Do these matter to you?
These are the things that the masses are agitating against. These are the things they want redressed by the government. These are the issues the people want to be rescued from. But instead of addressing the issues and seek solutions to them, the approach of the government is to arrest the people and clamp them into detention without bail in a democratic setting. It is either number one or two on the list of things they are pressing for. It is very embarrassing the way the government reacted to the protest. The security agents have unduly become high-handed and ruthless and the government is just sitting there helplessly. They swore to an oath to protect lives and property in the country and so, what is happening now is strange. It is strange to the people, the law and the constitution. It, therefore, means that they have failed in their duties.
If they have failed in their duties, what do you expect the people to do? Should the people take the law into their hands on the ever-increasing spate of insecurity in the country?
Unfortunately, what you have just said may be what we are going to have. If people have expressed their fears, they have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way things are going and are asking the government to do something. Government is refusing to hear them out and is responding in a manner that suggests that they want the people to protect themselves. If the government is refusing to protect the people, I am afraid that soon, people will begin to look for ways to protect themselves. That is where the nation is going.
One of the states in the Southeast in its response to the insecurity issue is employing 1,700 forest guards. If this is replicated in other states, will it give a measure of confidence in combating kidnapping by herdsmen?
We wait and see how that will work. If it works out well, then it won’t be bad for other states to adopt it. A strategy that will rekindle hope in the people and solve the high level of insecurity in the country is welcome. We noted that the state is taking drastic step in combating the security problem. If other states will take similar bold steps like that, the menace will be reduced.
What is your comment on the RUGA scheme that is spearheaded by the government for herdsmen?
Just like many people have expressed their views, RUGA cannot work in Nigeria. If you say that you want to build RUGA in the Southwest for cattle herders, are you also going to build a settlement for farmers in the North? What I think we should have is cattle ranch. If you have the ranches here and there, for instance, we have ranches in the South, managed by us, the southerners. As a farmer in the South, you can go to your farm without any fear of molestation or attack or that your farm will be devastated by cows. It should not be that you will bring Fulani people to a place like Ondo State to take up their land, no. Individuals can even set up ranches and ask others, including the herdsmen to manage the ranches. The cattle can be brought from anywhere into the ranches for rearing. The issue of acquiring land for herding should be ruled out. I think that is what is fair, equitable and workable.
Feelers have it that a huge sum of N2.8billion is already in the 2019 Appropriation Bill for the building of RUGA across the states. What do you say about that?
It is illegal. That is what we are hearing. Nigerians will rise against it. As long as it is illegal, it will not be allowed to stand.
But Nigerians have the fear that the current National Assembly will pass it as it is largely regarded as rubber stamp legislature. What is your view on that?
Nigerians won’t allow it to be passed into law. I am sure that people will rise up against it.
Relatedly, there is this bill “Inland Waterways Bill,” which was rejected by the 8th Senate. The bill empowers the Federal Government to take over the river banks and adjoin lands from state governments, which is suspected would be passed over to the Fulani herders, what is your reaction to that?
I am sure it will also be rejected. A lot has been said about it. I am in no doubt that it will also be rejected just as it was rejected the last time. We already have a lot of noise in the media against it. It will not sail through. That is the danger of having a rubber stamp legislature. It is dangerous. The essence of having a legislature is to have an arm of government that will act as a check and balance on the executive arm. If you have a rubber stamp legislature, that means, there will be nobody to put into check the excesses of the executive. That is bad and dangerous for democracy.
I would like you to look at the ministerial nominees that have been passed by the Senate awaiting swearing-in. Do you think it is a good cabinet of hope?
You know as I do know that most of those people are recycled. They have been there before and we know their output. That means we are going to have the same ideas, and the same style. That means they will continue to do the same things that brought us nowhere. That means there is not going to be any change. That much is clear. There will be no change and that means we are not going forward at all. We will continue to use the same people to do the same things and expect change. There will be no improvement. There is also no gender equality. Out of the 42 nominees, there are only six women. It is also a negation of the Gender Equality Bill, which prescribes at least 35 per cent for women on the cabinet.
Apart from that, it has been learnt that there are people who have corruption issues that made the list. What have you to say on that?
It is negation of the principle of corruption war being waged by the government. It is a shame that the only credential the present government is flying, dangling here and there like a carrot is the corruption war, which has been destroyed by the people they are putting in government. It is not helping their case. A lot of the officials of Buhari’s government have been pinned down to be corrupt and they are still in government.
With the low score you have given to the incoming ministers, which means the economy of the country may not look up from where it has been in the last four years?
It is very unfortunate. That is the fear of everybody and it is very unfortunate.
So, how can this be overcome?
As I said earlier, there is power in the voice of the people. The demonstration of the people is their right. Nigerians should continue to speak out and express their dissatisfaction with the situation of things in the country. Nobody gives you your right unless you press for it, you ask for it. I want Nigerians to fight for their right, demand for it relentlessly. That is how we can effect change.